Janine Bolon: Well, welcome back. This is Janine Bolon with The Writers Hour Creative Conversations. And as you know on the show, we like to bring on authors who are doing unique and wonderful things. Now, as you know, I do not have a judgment on this. I think every book is unique. I think every book is wonderful and exciting. And so I just wanted to say today was kind of fun for me because we have a veteran political journalist by the name of Anne Michaud, who is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. She previously wrote a nationally syndicated op-ed column for Newsday and was twice named “Columnist of the Year”. She’s won more than 25 writing and reporting awards.
One of the things that’s cool about today is we’re going to be talking about her book and the writing transformation she had to go through to create the book “Why They Stay”. Now, let’s talk a little bit about the book itself. Not only has she researched it, but she is researching the women behind some of the most notorious men in the public eye. She discovered this amazing pattern that was just as old as the old dynasties back in medieval England where women were having to make super bold decisions in the public eye even more so today than in medieval Europe about security and how to keep their families’ history-making potential alive.
Her book “Why They Stay” reveals the inner lives of eight political wives as they fight to maintain a grip on power and pursue their own personal ambition. Welcome to the show today, Anne. It’s great to have you.
Anne Michaud: Thank you, Janine. It’s great to be here.
Janine: First of all, I can’t wait to read your book. I wasn’t able to get to it before this podcast. However, it’s happening. Mainly because I was really impressed by the number of people that you had. You have Melania Trump. You have Hillary Clinton, Jackie Kennedy. Jackie Kennedy is always fun to study because the fact that she was influencing fashion that was the first during her era. And then Eleanor Roosevelt. Everybody loves Eleanor and they don’t realize what that poor woman was going through. You have a whole list of others. But first let’s talk about you as a writer because one of the things is here, you are this amazing writer. You’re in The Wall Street Journal. No offense. Why write a book? Tell us that story. To me, that’s the wild one right there.
Anne: Thanks for saying so. I think it probably grew out of frustration. I have been a reporter for many years. When you write for different newspapers, you’re always being edited by somebody and someone’s always taking your creative passions that’s added to the story. I remember this one editor. He sent me home and he’d cut, cut, cut. It got to be a little bit frustrating, and I wanted to do something that I had more ownership over.
Janine: Book definitely does that, doesn’t it? I mean, yeah, you have editors, but it’s more of a negotiation at that point. It isn’t like your editors just slicing and dicing on your work. And like you said, taking the passion. Taking the emotion out of it. That’s another thing that happens a lot for you folks, so I can definitely understand that. So, if you don’t mind, talk to us a little bit about what was the spark. What was it where you’re like, “I want to white write the story”? So if you don’t mind, what was the story behind your story?
Anne: Well, I originally started out writing about something more wonky about how government can support a working family and I met an agent that way. She was interested in the idea. But we put it out to publishers, and it didn’t sell. She said, “I have another idea. How about since you are writing about all of these people and this is happening in real time. We were looking at the Governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer. He just quit over a scandal about hiring hookers and Hillary Clinton was looking like she was going to run for president. This was like 2014. So I said, “Well, sure, I could look at that.” I think the real struggle for me was with carving out time in my day. I had two daughters in their teenage years and a full-time job. But it really just got a hold of me. This idea that I would do this, plus we ended up selling the idea to a publisher and then there was a deadline and so that was another incentive.
Janine: Yeah. So here you are working on a totally different idea about how the government can help, right? And then the next thing you know, you are in this political arena of the wives of these political figures and you’re telling their story, which it’s been a long time. It’s amazing how many presidents we had that very little is known of the first ladies until you hit Eleanor Roosevelt. That’s when it became more of a job in and of itself, where the first lady position came out. So talk to us a little bit about here you are working a full-time job. You’ve got these two daughters that you are trying to get through puberty teenagers. Oh my gosh, heart goes out to you. I raised four children. I understand that.
So here you are trying to be a mom and you are trying to work full-time and you are nurturing this other child. Like Hemingway said, nurturing a book is like nurturing a child. So, as you move forward with this process, then you have to set up interviews and you have this deadline. Talk to us a little bit about your process. How did you go about, first of all, even getting an audience with these folks? Because they’re not people you can just get on Facebook, tag them and say, “Hey, I want to be your friend.”
Anne: Yeah. Well, I have been doing political reporting first for a business magazine in New York City. I covered the city politics and state politics. Honestly, every political campaign in America seems to come to New York City to raise money. There are a lot of a whole cadre of consultants who make their business here and I knew all of them pretty well. I had established really good relationships with them. So I had sort of the swimming and all of this knowledge of how these people make their decisions, what was happening in real time with the Spitzer’s in particular, and Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin. So that was helpful. As I said before, whenever I was feeling frustrated or anything else in my life, I would say, “Okay, I’m just going to go pour that into my book and I would do some work on it.” The other trick I have, which I’m sure any parent will relate to, is to just get up earlier than everyone else.
Janine: Yeah, everybody always freaks out when I tell them, ‘”Yeah, I get up every morning at four o’clock when I’m writing a book”, and they’re like, “Oh my gosh.” I’m like, “Well. I get up at 4 a.m. and I write until the first child woke up.” I mean, when my children were barely able to walk, that was the only way I was able to write and it’s a habit that here I am in my mid-50s still doing that same habit just because I got into that routine. But I don’t write every day. It’s when I have a project that’s when I crank it out. I like to share that with people that I’m not one of these everyday writers. But for yourself, this is your occupation. You’re one of those we like to call the elite. You’re one of those 3%. You make a living writing. Well done.
For those of us, we are like hacks. We write books here and there, but we’re not making our mortgage payments through writing. For that, we are very grateful that you are here with us today. So, talk to us a little bit about how you weren’t trying to write a tell-all book to destroy people. How you really wanted to present in “Why They Stay”. You just wanted to share with them, look, these people do not live in their political lives. They don’t live like you do. You being whoever the reader is. Your life and these people’s life are diametrically opposed in certain ways. Do you want to talk to us a little bit about that?
Anne: Well, I found that with these couples, when they were at their decision-making point, when they had their crisis or scandal, they would do a lot of the things that private couples do. They had a lot of heart-to-heart talks. I focused on the women. They would make decisions based on whether what they felt was good for their children, what they felt was good for their future security. But I think also there were political elements to what they were taking into consideration when they decided how they would move forward. I think for them they had to come out in many cases and make a public statement and acknowledge that this had happened. Not in Eleanor’s time or Jackie’s time, but eventually the press started reporting on these [inaudible]. So they would have to have a press conference or decide whether to go on television or not.
Hillary Clinton very famously went on 60 Minutes with her husband and said, “I forgive him if you don’t don’t vote for him.” But when Melania Trump had the opportunity to do that when Donald was accused of sexual harassment and assault before the election, there was a discussion of maybe he should go on television, talk about it, try to win over the women’s vote, and Melania said, “I’m not doing it.”
Janine: Each wife figures out for not only themselves but for the security and safety of their family. That was the other thing that I really liked about what you were sharing with me about the book was that you can actually see where each woman was looking at it differently than what you are used to seeing men, which is they’re thinking multi-generationally. That was the thing that was really neat about what you were bringing out and how they they were deciding, “Okay. Is this something I want to go head-to-head with like Huma Abedin? Or do I want to just go along with what people are thinking of my husband and make my own path like Eleanor did?”
I mean, Eleanor is incredibly famous for that. People don’t know the why until you know 40 years later when some of her diaries were allowed out into the public, right? But nowadays things are so quick. So, what are some advice that you can give authors like myself and others that are listening? What advice can you give us about how to set up interviews well? Because it’s obvious, these people trusted you to tell their side. There’s a level of trust. How did you get that from these wonderful people?
Anne: Well, with a lot of the women in question, they didn’t talk to me. We had refusal from Melania. But I did talk to some of the people around the people who are the subjects of the book. For example, in the chapter on the Trump couple, I talked to Michael Caputo and Roger Stone, who were both longtime advisors of Donald Trump. Bart Rossi, who is a political psychologist and other people like that. I think just knowing the material is important. Roger Stone is one of them. They do talk to the press and you see his name all the time. You know that that person is probably going to be a good person to reach out to. I think some of it does depend on you establishing your credentials. Like you can say, “look, I have done this much work on something. Here’s the approach I’m going to take.” I think if they ask, “could you send me some questions beforehand?”, that’s not something we would necessarily do in journalism. But I think as an author, I do everything I can to make the other person comfortable.
Janine: So basically having some work that you can show them or examples of this is what I’ve done as far as my writing skills, and this is where I’m headed, and here are some questions, that helps bring out that sense of trust that is so important. Because whenever I read books like this, it’s like from being an author myself I know that probably only 30% of what you have learned actually makes it into the freaking book, right? I mean, there’s so much more that you could share, but you can’t. It doesn’t fit with the flow. Do you want to talk to us a little bit about that? Some of those heartbreaking choices you had to make on your content.
Anne: I have two editions of the book. The first edition had nine women. And then when I wanted to include Donald Trump and Melania Trump, I had to cut out two chapters and put them in. So now the second edition doesn’t include two of the chapters and honestly, one of them was my absolute favorite. But it was the same Kennedy era early 1960s in Great Britain, Valerie Hobson and Jack Profumo. It was sort of dated and I didn’t think that a lot of readers had as much interested in that as I did. So, I just went with what I thought would interest people. The point of this was just to not make the book so gosh darn long that nobody would pick it up.
Janine: Right. That is the thing, the attention span. You know, I quote Hemingway a lot. One of my favorite remembrances of what I was studying when I was learning how to be an author was, he’s like, “If you’re going to be an author, you have to learn how to kill your own children.” And I didn’t quite understand what that was about when he was talking about that until I started having to cut whole chapters out of my book, like you said, that I absolutely loved. I really resonated with it, but my editor was looking at me and goes, “No one cares, Janine. Just you.” It’s painful when we do that.
One of the things I’m going to share with the listeners was the fact that you can sign up for Anne’s email list and she only contacts you like once, twice, maybe three times a year. But when she has to cut these chapters out of her books, guess who benefits? You do if you are on her email list. You can go to her website and she’ll tell you that later on. She’ll send those out to you so that you can get some of these chapters that she’s passionate about that don’t make the grade when it comes to the additions of her book that she’s working on. And for that, people like me go, “Thank you, Anne. Thank you for doing that for us.” Because we love that stuff. We love the way you write. We love what you’re doing with that.
If you don’t mind, let’s chat a little bit about the people that you interviewed. In “Why They Stay”, you started to notice a pattern that was coming out with all of these political women, especially when it came to the fact that they were having to cope with some of them in their beds. The incredible depression and that sort of thing. But coping with the fact that they were married to a political party, not necessarily a man, that’s big stuff that most of us don’t deal with on a daily basis. So, do you mind sharing with us some of the patterns that you, as a reporter, started to notice that maybe you wouldn’t have otherwise?
Anne: Sure. I ended up collecting my thesis into five traits that I thought I saw in common among all the women. They tended to have grown up very traditionally with traditional values in their lives. They sometimes had something difficult happened to them as children that made them interested in seeking security in marriage. Often they had a personal sense of patriotism where they would think of what they could do for the country or the state or whatever elective office their spouse was holding. They have the responsibility for the family’s emotional health, and they had an ambition to build and bequeath the legacy to their children. So, I think some of those things private women can relate to, and other things not so much. It’s more about being part of a political couple.
I sort of wrapped this up in what I called the “White Queen Syndrome”. That’s a reference to Elizabeth Woodville, who was known as the White Queen in England in the 14000s during the War of the Roses. She was a widow. She was a member of the minor nobility. No real money or assets to speak of on her own. She met the king, and they got married, which was a very unusual thing for a king to do at the time. Her daughter married Henry VII, which ended the War of the Roses. Their line established the Tudor dynasty. So, the common thread to me was that women now still in political life see marriage as something that benefits them in a way that they might not be able to do if they were out on their own.
Janine: So it definitely is using that very traditional upbringing that they had and their increased need for security that maybe others can live without. In their mindset, they really needed to embrace that tradition and go about moving into a marriage that may have had some lackluster to it. Let’s just say in that way. Well, that’s fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing those five traits with us because that was the thing that I was trying to glean from your mini articles and stuff on it. And I’m looking forward to reading the book to see those five principles manifest as we go on. But back to you and the actual writing of it, since you had to do so many interviews with people that were around them or that sort of thing, did you have to go to a lot of first documents where you’re finding yourself digging around in people’s diaries or old letters? Or were you able to do most of this online? Talk to us a little bit about your process.
Anne: I probably read 400 books and articles about these people. So there was a lot of that sort of research. And some original documents, but a lot of it was what had been published already. I think what I brought to the forefront was more of a focus on these very famous people as women, as wives. For example, you don’t often hear about Jackie Kennedy, though it’s been out there for years that she consulted a physician to ask him about how to keep her husband happy in bed. You don’t often hear that Eleanor Roosevelt, her parents died when she was very young. Eleven, I think. She went to live with her grandmother and would lock her bedroom door because her uncles would come in at night. There are a lot of things that I think people don’t talk about because it’s very particular to women’s experience that I wanted to include in this book and it’s all well-documented.
Janine: Right. Because you’ve done your research. How many of us can say, “we’ve read 400 books and articles on people that we are trying to write about”. I mean, even our wonderful fiction writers, they may dig around for a while in certain aspects. But eventually you must move on for the pacing of your story. So, first of all, thank you for all that research because, as a scholar myself, I love that part of writing. I love the stories. Like I said, the story behind the story is often the one that I find incredibly intriguing. It allows me to then read a book like “Why They Stay” and be excited about, wow, I remember when she was talking about this. To me, it enriches the story to learn more about the effort put behind it. So, what are the things in your future? What are some of the projects? What do you think about for your future? You can continue to just update the book and give us new additions. What can we expect from Anne over the next several years?
Anne: I’m looking for new topics right now. When an idea excites me, I go and check it out and then I often find somebody else has written a book about it, so I can’t do that. But yeah, when I published the first edition in 2017 of “Why They Stay”, I was ready to move on to a different subject. Everywhere I would go, I would speak at libraries or other public gatherings and people would say to me, “What about Melania and Donald Trump?” So I felt like I had to go back and address that because they were such an inflection point in this whole discussion of marital fidelity and how politician relates to the women around him. So that was my thinking. I’m doing a second edition. One thing that I read about Elliott Roosevelt who had five wives. His fourth wife, he tried to have her put into a mental institution and tried to take her money. She was wealthy. So I thought, “well, that’s an interesting thing that people do to each other.” I would like to poke around in that and see if people have written about it.
There’s a really good book out right now that I’m reading about women. I’m not sure. Her name will come to me. “The Woman They Couldn’t Silence” I think is the name of the book. It’s about a woman who was too headstrong for her husband in the late 18000s. And he had her committed, and it was also had something to do with money. She didn’t want to spend money the way he did or something. There was some fortune she wouldn’t agree to. So she was locked up for many years. And this book tells her story, and I was thinking it might be interesting to look at that either as an abuse of the mental health system over many years or maybe there’s one person who stands out whose story hasn’t been told. So, that’s what I’m thinking right now.
Janine: I love that because it is always a work in progress. Like the next project is always in progress, whether we have a target for it or not. Because every writer has their thing. So, in your case, do you see your book cover? Like, for me, if I have the book cover designed in my head, whether that’s how it eventually is or not is not the point. The point is, if I visualize the book cover, I can move forward with the writing. But for you, what is your thing? What is your clarifying point of “I can move forward with the writing now”?
Anne: I think it would have to be some sort of internal sense that the story captivates me.
Janine: Yes, because if you’re not passionate about it, you’re not going to take that. You’re not going to spend the hours at the keyboard making it happen, are you?
Anne: You need to be so delightful to be immersed in a story you care about.
Janine: It is. That’s the best part of writing. So before we wrap up today, let’s go back to that chapter that was your absolute favorite that you had to drop out. It was in the first edition, but you had to take it out of the second edition because you needed to make space for the Trump dyad. So, tell us a little bit about that beloved chapter and what it was that you adored so much about that story.
Anne: I love that the woman in the story, Valerie Hobson, was an actress and she was on stage in the original production of The King and I in London. I think she meant Richard Rodgers or Oscar Hammerstein. Did I get those names right? Anyway, she met one of them and he auditioned her. So she was at this wonderful height of her fame on the London stage and she ended up marrying a man who she had been on and off for many years. He asked her to give up her career for their marriage. He was a member of Parliament. I think she had a Down syndrome son from the first marriage and she ended up speaking out for Down syndrome children. One of the very first people to do that in the 60s and created a foundation for them as well. So I really admired that about her.
When he had his scandal, which was a dalliance with someone who was said to be a working girl, he lied about it on the floor Parliament and they let him go. I’m not sure what the technical term is for that in England. His resignation and disgrace ended up washing off on the rest of his party, which was a conservative party. They lost quite a bit in the next election, and it turned over to the other party to rule the Parliament. And I think also what was so cool about it was that in the 60s this was a point at which the English would say, “oh, there’s a certain person born to rule.” And when they saw this scandal for Jack Profumo and how sort of sorted it was, a lot of people from the middle class ended up being able to think of a career in politics. Margaret Thatcher, for example, I think her dad owned a grocery store. So there was a whole class element that turned over during that time and I thought those were some reasons why I love that chapter.
Janine: It’s kind of like when we find out that the father of science because, you know, I was trained as an analytical biochemist and Michael Faraday is one of those people; he altered science. He became the father of science because up until his day; it was only the aristocracy that had the leisure, and Michael Faraday was the one that brought it into an actual occupation. It could become an occupation to be a scientist. And so, what you’re sharing with me is like this was a similar thing. All of a sudden the middle class says, “Oh, I can actually have a shot at being a part of this process.” These are huge shifts and thinking that come from unlooked-for sources. Isn’t it fascinating when you start digging at that? It’s amazing.
Janine: Anne, it has been a delight. Thank you so much for your time today. I know how much you have to work and how busy you are. The fact that you took time to be on the Writers Hour, I really appreciate it. Where can people go to sign up for your once or twice a year kind of email list so that we can be a part of those beautiful chapters that have to be cut?
Anne: Thanks, Janine. You can go to my website, annemichaud.com. And if you scroll way down, you’ll see there’s a space to put in your email address. I’ll keep in touch and read every email that people send to me.
Janine: And that’s one of the things. Because I have butchered Anne’s name, allow me to say to you that to get to her website is annemichaud.com. The book that we are talking about today is “Why They Stay.” Anne is a very amazingly well-rounded writer, scholar, and author. I encourage you to sign up to her website. You will learn a lot from her. Thank you again, Anne, for being with us today.
Anne: Thanks, Janine. It was really a pleasure.
Janine: And this is The Writers Hour Creative Conversations. We broadcast every Friday. I look forward to seeing you next week when we have yet another author doing amazing work, bringing the light into our rooms. Have a great day today.